As the lights dim in the house of the South Bend Civic Theatre in South Bend, Indiana, actors take their places on the stage. They are the cast of the theatre’s production of “Black Eagles,” a story about the Tuskegee Airmen and their role in World War II.
These actors come from varying backgrounds. One is a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army. Another is a student at nearby University of Notre Dame. Yet another is a pastor at a local church.Some of the actors have never been on stage before. Some didn’t even know the impact their characters had on the history of aviation, civil rights, and America.
The story follows five African American pilots as they challenge social constructs during their service in World War II. The pilots are assigned to fly the famous P-51 Mustang during escort missions for B-17 bombers. They quickly find hostility not only in the air, but among soldiers at their base as well. Despite the adversity they are faced with, the pilots succeed in the skies and spark change on the ground.
After learning about the production, pilots Brett Schuck, Damian Dieter and Randy Jones contacted the cast of Black Eagles, offering to teach the young actors how to properly fly.
The actors learned how to use aircraft controls, basic radio communications, and even got a taste of formation flying.
They enjoyed nostalgic decorations and educational displays inside Dr. Dieter’s hangar.
They also were given a brief lesson about the history of aviation, the P-51 Mustang, the role of the Tuskegee Airmen, and the impact they had on the country.
Finally, they all got the chance to fly in a Cirrus SR-20, Beechcraft Bonanza, or Varga Kachina over the skies of South Bend. For many, it was their first time in an airplane.
Black Eagle actor Ben Little knew about the Tuskegee Airmen, but learned so much more.
“I knew about the Tuskegee Airmen from my mother teaching in school,” he said. “But coming into the play, I didn’t know much about flying. I didn’t know how intricate flying was and how much you had to focus on flying the airplane, not to mention the wind, weather, and even enemy planes and ground fire.”
Actor Cam Matteson was surprised how much he enjoyed the flight.
“The whole experience redefined what a pilot looks like in my mind,” he said. “These guys were normal, not the pilots you see in the movies. I’m scared of heights, but I wasn’t scared up there because of their confidence. It made me think I could fly too someday…maybe.”
Back in the theater, the actors implemented the advice given by the pilots in their dogfighting scenes. When their aircraft is climbing, the actors knew to throttle forward and pull back on the elevator. When turning, they’d remember to add rudder to their aileron controls.
Black Eagle actor Eric Ways explained how he implemented his training.
“Remember, the stick is always moving, and you have to use fine adjustments to keep it going where you want,” he said. “That’s something I learned actually flying, so now I do that while I act. Also, now I don’t just look forward, but up, left, right, and underneath.”
“And be sure to check your six,” he adds, smiling.
After giving the flight lesson, Cirrus pilot Brett Schuck attended one of the Black Eagles performances.
He is happy to report all flying scenes were aeronautically accurate, although some actors could have added a bit more right rudder.